“We Remember Them”

by Margaret Weis

First Parish of Watertown, May 27, 2012


            The year was 1866 and the United States was recovering from a long and bloody Civil War. Many of the soldiers were returning with unimaginable wounds and others didn’t come home at all. A drugstore owner named Henry Welles in Waterloo, New York suggested that all places of business close for one day in honor of all the local soldiers who had been killed. And so, on the morning of May 5, all of the shops were closed and townspeople went to the local cemetery and placed wreaths at the headstones of the fallen. 

            A few weeks later, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan planned another ceremony: a march of the soldiers who had returned, and they processed solemnly through the main street in town, having been ornamented with flowers from the townspeople. The day was coined Decoration Day.

            Two years later, the two ceremonies merged and the tradition grew and changed, but kept its spirit of remembrance and honoring the fallen from the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1882 that the name was changed to Memorial Day and soldiers who were killed in other wars were included in the observance. In 1971, under the Nixon administration, the day was first observed as a Federal holiday. And still, 146 years later, we set aside this weekend for remembrance, and tribute … we take pause and remember.

            Memorial Day is a complicated holiday. For those of us who struggle with war and violence, or who are pacifists, this day can take on an energy that seems to glorify war. For others among us, this day brings a wave of emotion as we remember loved ones who serve or have served in the military, whose lives have been cut short, or who are in danger. And still, for others among us, this observance is nothing more than a three-day weekend, the kick-off to summer, the first day (I have learned) that it is fashionably acceptable to wear white pants!

            But I imagine that, for most of us, this weekend brings a mixture of these reactions. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to build a community that stirs up conversation and exploration of our faith and how it functions in this world. Whatever this time evokes for you, you are welcome here. This is a sanctuary of remembrance and honor, and struggle and peace.

            I remember when I was little I asked my parents about this Memorial Day. I wondered what the difference was between Veterans’ Day, Independence Day and Memorial Day. Why did we have three days to celebrate being American?! My parents patiently described the differences between the holidays. And I came to realize that Memorial Day had a somber feeling. It wasn’t all about cookouts and setting up the sprinkler for the first time in the season.

            We lived down the street from the Memorial park in the town, and each year there was a wreath-laying ceremony there. The song of bagpipes was the soundtrack to our cookouts. Guns fired and Amazing Grace played as we ate burgers and hot dogs, and even shortcake adorned by strawberries and blueberries, and whipped cream, appropriately in the American colors of red, white, and blue. It was, and still is, a day of both celebration and remembrance.

            And in this day of remembrance, we also honor the lives of all of our loved ones who have died. In the bringing of flowers to gravesites and quiet reflection, we remember all those who have gone before us. The tradition of adorning with flowers is not limited to those who have served in the military. The loss of human life is always significant. We remember them all.

            It’s through remembering that we heal. Yes, when a person dies, it can be painful to think of times when they were well, or happy, or full of life. It pains our heart that they have died. Grieving the loss of a person we love can be the most isolating experience. It’s a time when our heart is breaking, and we feel like no one understands. In the past year, many people here have experienced such losses, of family members and friends, colleagues and mentors. Each of us has experienced that loss individually. And now is the time to honor those losses together. In this religious community, in this sacred space, we share the weight of those losses together. We remember them. We remember them together. And it’s through that remembrance that we continue to heal.

            A few years ago, a memorial was built in front of my high school to honor sacrifices of military service members whose lives were lost in service to this country. Bedford, Massachusetts is the closest to a military town I’ve ever seen. Home to Hanscom Air Force Base, there are a lot of people who serve in the military or whose family members serve. A number of my classmates joined the Air Force or other branches after high school, and others after completing ROTC training in college. Some had been raised in the military, and others were not, but each of them followed their call to serve. By the end of my freshman year in college, two of my classmates, one in the class below me, and the other in my graduating class – had been killed in the Middle East. Their names are now etched on the memorial, alongside others who have died.

            When I went to see the memorial, I sat quietly in reflection on their lives. My remembrance is less about their military identities, because that wasn’t my experience of them. My memories of these young men are backdropped by Biology labs, and cafeterias, sports fields, and Health classes. Young and vibrant spirits that held such potential, and whose lives were cut short by tragic circumstances. I can imagine that some of you have similar memories of loved ones who served and died. Or maybe you’ve read stories or articles about women and men killed in action. Or perhaps today brings to mind stories of a parent whose life work was as a doctor or lawyer, occupations that influenced their life but did not encompass all of who they were.

            I’m reminded of a young woman who reflected on the death of her husband who was killed in Iraq. She struggled because, when he died, the focus was all on the soldier he had been … his medals and honors, and his bravery in battle. But for her, he was her husband, her best friend. He was an athlete, a poet, and a chocolate chip cookie lover. And while she honored his service to his country, she had lost much more than a soldier.

            Stories like these are exactly why a day of remembrance is different than a patriotic holiday. Because the fallen soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors are our parents, siblings, friends, spouses, grandchildren, grandparents, teachers, mentors, and neighbors. And while we may never fully understand their struggles, we must honor their lives. By taking a moment of pause … by staying mindful of the very real consequences of war, and the loss that results … we honor the divine within each and every one of them. In our mindfulness of the fragility of life, we see the beauty in each moment shared with those we love. We remember to value and appreciate people while they are still alive. We remember to live and love in each moment. And in that remembrance we are steps closer to peace.

            I was in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. It was a quick trip, and one that didn’t allow for a lot of sightseeing, but it was amazing all the same. I had to catch my breath as I walked from historic building to historic building, trying to avoid getting in the way of the lobbyists, and tourists, and other passersby on the sidewalks. What a magnificent place! What an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking place. The buildings were so artistically carved and created that I had to touch one of them to make sure I wasn’t actually standing INSIDE a postcard!  The Capitol building, each of the buildings that house Congresspeople and Senators, places where decisions are made everyday that shape our daily lives. I stood in the nucleus of the national government. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so small, and yet so powerful, all at the very same time.

            There is something about being in the capital that resonated with me. Though I had visited before, my last visit of any length of time was when I was a child … my most vivid memory of that trip is a watermelon-flavored Italian Ice I bought from a street vendor! Needless to say, this recent trip was a bit more emotionally charged and important.

            I went to Washington to tell the story of my family, to tell of the struggles of being married to a military service member who is deployed, and how we are treated differently because we are the same gender.  I went there on a mission: to speak truth in love, and to help those representing me and other military family members to understand how our daily lives are impacted by the decisions they make. I was there to use my voice, to use the democratic process that so many lives have been lost in order to uphold.

            I got caught up in the hustle and bustle of the days I spent there, and didn’t take a lot of time to reflect on where I was. Then my friend picked me up, and we headed toward her home in Virginia. On our way out of the city, we passed the Air Force Memorial. It was a tall and mighty structure inspired by the streams that follow a jet as it takes off into flight; three tall and pointy metal structures that taper off at the top. It’s a tribute to all who serve in the United States Air Force, and all who have ever served. It’s also a tribute and a memorial to the lives lost. It is a symbol of our interconnectedness and shared human experience of service and courage and loss.

            As you are probably well aware, there are a number of memorials in Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the World War II Memorial, to name a few. Each structure and landscape is designed to capture the power and influence of that person or time in history, so that it will never be forgotten. In these structures, we pay tribute to influential and powerful moments and people in our history. With these structures, we take pause and remember. We remember the struggles for freedom that came with the abolishment of slavery, and the continued fight for Civil Rights in this country. We remember the lives lost in wars and conflicts that left nations with wounds to heal and families without their loved ones.

            We remember them.

            We do so because those memories and people are part of the fabric of our communal life together, their lives are interwoven with ours. It’s in this same spirit that we create headstones and other markers for the final resting places of our dead. We seek to pay tribute to their lives, the influence they’ve had on us, and the imprint they’ve left on this world. It’s through this remembrance that their love continues to shine. And in the case of those who have died in battle, or overseas, they are sometimes unable to be brought home. And so, we mark their lives and deaths on these memorials, to honor their sacrifice. We do so because just like you, and you, and you, they are members of our human family.

            A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my niece. We were constructing her credo, the culmination of the year she has spent Coming of Age in the Unitarian Universalist church. When I asked her what happens after we die, she responded that she’s not quite sure. Then she added that what she is sure of is that we live on in the memories shared by the people we love. It’s through remembrance that our lights still shine.

            We live on through the memories. We live on through remembrance.

            And for most of us, there are family members and friends, and fellow churchmembers who will carry our light onward. They are the people who will tell the stories of our triumphs and struggles, of our loves and losses. But for some, there is no family to carry that light forward.

            My wife, Susan, served in the Honor Guard for her unit. She and her comrades would be called to the graveside of a veteran, sometimes young and sometimes old, to perform the military honors that involve bugles and the folding and presentation of an American flag. She tells the story of the saddest funeral she was part of. It was an older gentleman who served during World War II, and for whatever reason had only one person at his funeral … his sister. Susan told of fighting back tears as she and her partner folded the flag and presented it to this man’s one surviving friend and relative.

            If it weren’t for this woman, the minister, and the Honor Guard, who would have remembered this man?

            In the words of Maria Cassee in our poem this morning, “Will anyone remember? Will anybody care? About the lads so far from home whose life was ended there?”

            While there are grieving family members and friends for whom Memorial Day is every day. While there will always be that hole in their hearts. We can join in remembrance of those lives lost. We may stay mindful of the sacrifices and consequences of living in a world fraught with violence and war. As Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith, and as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, teachers, students, mentors, neighbors, and spouses, we can help to shine their lights as we remember them.

            For all those who serve and for all those who have lost their lives in service. We give thanks. For all those who have gone before us, we carry the light forward in the memories. For we know not what is beyond the veil of this life. As we celebrate this weekend, let us do so with intention and mindfulness of all those who have died. Let us notice the empty seat at the picnic table, and reflect on the sadness there.

            May we take a few moments to honor those who serve. And in our time spent with loved ones, may we hear the memorial music of bagpipes in the background.

            May we remember them. Amen. Blessed be.

Margaret Weis
Intern Minister | + posts